The Purpose-Driven Pet Owner, Part I: Purpose-Driven Nature
Another advantage of getting older takes the form of the increasing amount of evidence to support the old adage that there is little, if anything, truly new under the sun. Certain themes keep recurring, albeit each almost invariably presented as if it were something new. Ideas come and go and come again not unlike hairstyles or fashions. Within the human behavioral realm, academia's "goal-oriented" gives way to business's "results-oriented"; keeping our eyes on the ball gets replaced by admonitions to keep our eyes on the prize. The most recent reincarnation now urges us to embrace a purpose-driven approach to life. In this series of commentaries, we're going to look at the purpose-driven life and all its variations as these play out in wild and domestic animals and their relationship with us. In Part I, we explore the role of this concept in nature.
In spite of the fact that the concept is inevitably presented as a method developed by humans for humans, no one and nothing is more goal- or results-oriented, no one has his or her eye more firmly on the ball or the prize, and no one and nothing is more purpose-driven than nature. However, unlike the human-made concept, the natural one contains one critical element that makes it particularly powerful.
Those familiar with my work know that one of my favorite statements is "Evolution rewards those who get the job done using the least amount of energy." Animals who use the least amount of energy establishing a physical territory and, in the case of social species, determining where and how they fit into the group's mental space, have more energy to secure food and water. Those who use the least amount of energy securing food and water have more energy to devote to courting, mating, pregnancy, and raising their young. Animals who wander around looking for food instead of ensuring that their territory is free of predators don't last very long; those foolish enough to try to raise young in an insecure space or one lacking sufficient food and water won't have much to show for their efforts.
Consequently, we can say that those animals most likely to survive and reproduce are those who are purpose- or goal-oriented. If they need to get from point A to B, they choose the path that is the most energy-efficient for them. That for them explains why some members of working dog breeds do so poorly in competitive sports. For example, dogs bred to agilely negotiate all kinds of natural obstacles in pursuit of game may find climbing over an A-frame in an agility course a waste of energy when they could more easily breach that gap by running around the structure. Similarly, purpose-driven working border collies want to move and ensure the flock's safety in the most energy-efficient way, and this may vary from day to day, depending on the make-up of the flock, terrain, weather, and countless other factors. Put these dogs in competition in which the purpose is defined as the dog doing what a group of people think a border collie should do, which may be most energy-inefficient and perhaps even downright crazy relative to real-world flock survival, and these animals do poorly.
From this we can see that the purpose-driven orientation is deeply embedded in animals, but it is their purpose that drives them, not one we may impose on them to fulfill our own needs.
Whereas people who learn to focus on the result, goal, or prize may gain some relatively immediate personal benefit for themselves, the purpose-driven natural concept, like the religious one, also offers eternal life. Although faith rather than concrete proof supports the religious claims, we are daily surrounded by evidence that nature makes good on this promise. Those living beings who focus on the purposegetting their genes into the gene poolgain immortality via their offspring. Every animal around us bears witness to the purpose-driven spirit of every one of that animal's ancestors over thousands and even millions of years. Our pets and the flowers in our gardens do not represent some manmade point-in-time phenomenon. Each represents the willingness of at least a few in generation after generation not to get side-tracked by fads or fancies, not to foolishly waste their resources, and not to lose sight of the fact that the key to earthly immortality lies in successfully raising physically and mentally sound offspring, not winning wars or playing games.
At the beginning of this commentary, I mentioned that various reincarnations of the human version of the purpose-driven concept often lack one quality that invariably occurs in nature. That quality is personal accountability. Perhaps because of the greater behavioral immaturity conferred by our greater domestication, we humans often prefer only to take full responsibility for those choices that work to our advantage. When they don't, or if we want to behave in a manner we intuitively recognize as detrimental to the well-being of others and the planet, we then seek ways to project the responsibility for these choices onto someone (or Someone) or something else.
In the real, i.e. natural, world, grasshoppers who play when they should be working don't survive. Animals who spend a lot of energy fighting get eliminated from the gene pool. Those who try to take over someone else's territory invariably lose. Species that enslave other species inevitably become so dependent on the other that it becomes impossible to distinguish master from slave. Thus, and whether we wish to attribute this to animal consciousness or chance, what differentiates the natural from the human version of the purpose-driven life is with whom the responsibility ultimately lies for it and its consequences. Unlike in the human-made world, the natural world holds the individual accountable for both the choices and their consequences.
That animals are inherently purpose- or goal-oriented whereas we humans often prefer to avoid assuming the responsibility for making tough choices and accepting their consequences probably explains the human quest for various gurus to provide step-by-step recipes for success. However in Part II next month, we'll explore how the temptation to adopt a one-size-fits-all process and impose it on our pets can cause us to lose sight of the purpose of a human-animal relationship entirely.
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